Expectations vs. Reality
When I write the words “37 years ago,” it seems like an impossibly long time ago. Yet, when I squeeze my grandson’s hand and feel my heart swell, my days as a brand new mother seem as recent as just a moment ago.
My expectations of what new motherhood would feel like were rather loosely formed. Like many, it was easy for me to picture all of the soft cuddles and precious moments my babies and I would share. But when my twins arrived three weeks early, reality shattered my expectations. It was not the last time that would happen.
After two weeks in the neonatal unit, my (thankfully healthy) boys and I were sent home to get some rest. The nurses in the hospital explained to me that the boys were overstimulated by the bright lights and myriad alarms in the ICU. They would startle awake often and need comforting to calm back down and sleep.
When we finally arrived home from the hospital, I recall sitting on my couch, holding those beautiful babies, as we all three cried together. It was one month before my 23rd birthday.
Eventually I stopped crying, but they seemed to need more time. I suddenly realized just how much I had to learn. My dreams of cuddling a quiet babe were replaced by the reality of, well, two actual babies. We still cuddled, but the books I had read, full of expert advice, never elaborated on the intense emotional reality of a baby’s cries in the middle of the night—let alone two sets of cries. The worry, self-doubt, and sadness all intermingled with the joy, excitement, and belly laughs.
It was a bumpy start, but I felt so grateful for those tiny, precious boys.
Crying is Communication
Back in the 1970s, “experts” believed that newborn babies couldn’t think or communicate. Luckily, researchers soon began to document that babies could, in fact, recognize their mother’s voice, delight in a human face, and communicate their own likes and dislikes. That last point, the capability of communication, is what I forgot about in the middle of the night. My babies had to teach me all over again what I thought I had already learned.
Eventually, I figured out that through their cries, my babies were talking to me. They weren’t just wailing for no reason. They were trying to communicate in the only way their bodies knew how. No book could tell me exactly what each was saying, I had to learn it for myself. Hunger cries began softly, then became loud and more rhythmic. Cries of pain or discomfort would start with a shriek followed by high-pitched crying. Fussing, I learned, was different than a cry—lower in pitch, with facial scrunches and squirming moves.
What worked to soothe each baby was different based on their personalities and their individual needs. I gave soft pats or light rubs on the back as I spoke softly and held him close to my cheek to calm one baby; my other son was soothed when I gently stroked his head down to his neck and shoulders as I held him. I often tried to calm one baby while nursing the other.
If they were feeling physically uncomfortable, I’d rub their lower legs and feet while checking their diapers and gently cooing questions to them. Both boys seemed to like the questions, actually—as my voice and my eyebrows went way up with my asking, they would stop fussing to stare at me.
Learning On the Fly
I didn’t have the internet at my fingertips as a young mother. Sometimes I marvel at what my children can access now and wish I had the luxury at the time. Sometimes I see what too much information—especially out of context—can do to parents who are struggling. At those times I am grateful beyond measure that my experience was comparatively isolated.
I learned how to manage the sometimes panic of family needs day by day, all on the fly. It came in handy later on, when I had my third son. Of course, his provocations and the type of soothing he preferred was different from the first two boys.
By that time, though, I knew to hold on through the days of questioning and doubting myself, knowing that, at some point, it would click and we would start to understand each other. No expert could give me shortcuts or “tips” that would preempt what I learned in real life every day.
Engagement with our babies each day creates a stronger belief that:
- We are of infinite value to our babies;
- We do better as we learn more about them and as they learn to trust us each day;
- No “expert” knows better how to soothe, support, cuddle, or play with your baby than you.
All babies give us clues to their unique temperament. The responses we give help them develop trust in us. That hard-earned knowledge greatly reassured me at the tender age of 23, and continues to do so to this day. I hope it does you, too.
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